This article looks into greenwashing from the perspective of sustainability. What is this pervasive marketing offshoot and what can be done about it?
I came across this framework by TerraChoice and the results from their 2009 study are outstanding. You can find a link to it here.
Their research revealed that between 2006-2008 there was a tripling in green themed advertising. But that 98% of the products they tested that were marketed on this basis failed at least one of their ‘Seven Sins of Greenwashing.’
This shows that this is not a small problem isolated to a few bad apples, but a systemic problem.
Whilst there has been pushback on the methodology that was used to create this report, most notably from Joel Makower from Greenbiz, which you can find here. Overall, I think that the report is helpful in highlighting the problem with greenwashing and provides a framework to measure corporate greenwashing.
If we work on the basis of this definition from the Cambridge dictionary, that greenwashing is:
“An attempt to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
I think that a lot of people would agree that companies do often engage in this type of behaviour. In the same way that they have an interest in promoting their products and services as best-in-class in other categories, when that may not be the case.
Let’s look at the ‘Seven Sins of Greenwashing’ that TerraChoice have put forward.
1. Sin of the hidden trade-off
TerraChoice define this as “a claim suggesting that a product is ‘green’ based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.” From my experience this is a very common problem and comes about because of the complexities of sustainability.
2. Sin of no proof
TerraChoice define this as “an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.” This is an obvious one that companies can solve by being transparent and using third-party certification where that is available.
3. Sin of vagueness
TerraChoice define this as “a claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.” This is one which I blame on consumers for believing claims such as ‘all natural.’
4. Sin of worshiping false labels
TerraChoice define this as “a product that, through either words or images, gives the impression of third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.” This is one which companies can avoid by sticking to well known third-party certification schemes.
5. Sin of irrelevance
TerraChoice define this as “an environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.” Again, companies are somewhat to blame for this, but really consumers need to be smarter and not be persuaded by such vacuous claims.
6. Sin of lesser of two evils
TerraChoice define this as “a claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.” This is a very common example. I think it could partly be driven by sustainability league tables which rank tobacco companies, oil and gas companies and car makers with small or non-existing electric ranges in amongst the top most sustainable companies.
7. Sin of fibbing
TerraChoice define this as “environmental claims that are simply false.” This rests squarely with the companies who are making such claims and if possible, they should be prosecuted for false advertising.
What you need to know
This article looked into greenwashing from the perspective of sustainability.
We looked into the groundbreaking 2009 study by TerraChoice, which revealed that 98% of green marketing claims are false.
We then looked into the ‘Seven Sins of Greenwashing’ which TerraChoice based their report on. These serve as a useful framework to judge corporate greenwashing efforts against.
We looked into each of the seven sins in turn, the blame for most of which lay with the company making them, but we also need smart consumers to not be fooled by such vacuous claims.
Overall, most of the greenwashing claims have their root in the fact that sustainability is a complex phenomenon and too much of an emphasis on one area can cause problems elsewhere.
Ultimately, we also need smarter consumers who are looking into what they are purchasing.
Thank you for reading,
By Barnaby Nash
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think can be done about greenwashing?